This week my son Levi started his first day at Gan. He will be spending time with other children and some very talented Morah's, getting a great Jewish education. As every parent knows, there is a lot of emotion and preparation, as we got ourselves and Levi ready, for this new milestone in his life.
There are many times in our life where we eagerly anticipate an upcoming occasion. A bride and groom before their wedding, a parent before their newborn child arrives, the girl or boy going to school for the first day, or your first job interview. For each of these occasions, we prepare as best as we can in the appropriate way needed for that specific occasion, ensuring that when the big day arrives we are fully present.
Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the new month of Elul. This is the final month in the Jewish year, and it is the time for each of us to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We do so by auditing our spiritual accounts and assessing the year gone by; by repenting the failings of the past and resolving for the future, and by increasing our Torah study, prayer and giving charity.
Elul is the opportune time for all this because it is a month in which G‑d relates to us in a more open and compassionate manner than He does in the other months of the year. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught the following metaphor:
The king's usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
The month of Elul is when the king is in the field. During the special days of this month, each one of us, no matter our background, level of education, observance, or social status, have unfettered access and equal opportunity to approach the King - Al-mighty G-d.
If you knew you would soon be meeting G-d, how would you prepare? What would you want to say?
This week on the 20th day of Av, marked the yahrzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878 – 1944), the Rebbe's father. When our son Levi was born two years ago, we chose to name him in honor Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
A great scholar and teacher, for over thirty years he served the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk, first as a rabbi, and eventually as the chief rabbi. He unapologetically stood up to the communist regimes, and risked his life to ensure that even under their oppression there would be kosher, synagogue services, and Jewish life cycle ceremonies.
His ironclad commitment to his people and faith, came at a great personal cost. He was constantly harassed, persecuted and then arrested by the KGB. He also had to endure the Soviets forbidding him from attending the wedding of his oldest son, the Rebbe, his second son had to flee the border to save his life, and his youngest son was killed by Nazi collaborators.
He had a number of opportunities that he could have left the USSR and safely relocated to Eretz Yisroel, or America. But the Jewish community in Ukraine was in need, and he felt that had that responsibility. A true leader can not turn his back on his people.
On the night he was arrested, the KGB also confiscated all his books and decades worth of his scholarly handwritten manuscripts. As he was led away, his fate remained unknown. For weeks on end, the KGB viciously refused to tell his wife if he was still alive, and where they had taken him. He was imprisoned, and after several years eventually sent off to a remote, isolated town for a harsh exile, where he passed away.
Shortly before his passing, a friend walked into his home. His son, Evsey Neymotin, a retired nuclear scientist and former refusenik, related the following:
My father entered their house and he saw Rebbetzin Chana had a very serious look on her face and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was crying. She asked him "Why are you crying?" he answered, "Who am I leaving you with? I'm crying about leaving you alone."
Although Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lived a difficult life, the Communists and Soviets did not win.
Today we are blessed to live in a country where we can each celebrate and practice Judaism freely, openly and proudly. Torah education is accessible to everyone. We are not asked for that level of sacrifice that was needed one or two generations ago just to be Jewish. It is so easy to keep Kosher, so enjoyable to keep Shabbat, and so meaningful to study Torah and engage in Jewish education. Let's do it!
This weekend is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we fast, deprive ourselves and pray. It is the culmination of the Three Weeks, a period of time during which we mark the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Since then, prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem have taken a central role in our services. Three times a day in the Amidah prayer we beseech G-d to return us to Jerusalem, rebuild the Holy Temple, ". . .we hope for this all day," and usher in the Messianic era, ". . .may it be speedily in our days."
But there is more that we can do than just hope and pray.
Our Sages tell us that the destruction of the Temple was a result of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred among the Jewish people. By reversing this we can change the course of our destiny and bring an end to the exile sooner. Thus we must nullify that cause by living a life of ahavat chinam, gratuitous love among the Jewish people.
A beautiful story I read in Seeds of Wisdom comes to mind:
In the 1950s a Jewish children's magazine was struggling. Chabad had its own publication called Talks and Tales. When the Rebbe learned that the non-Chabad magazine was considering discontinuing their publication, he anonymously sent them a check for the amount needed to keep it running. "But aren't they competitors?" the Rebbe was asked. "The Jewish community is diverse." The Rebbe responded. "People's needs, persuasions and interests vary. It's crucial that there is something for everyone."
There must be gratuitous (unqualified) love even to those who have never done us a favor, even to those we have never met or seen, and especially to those with whom we may have the most profound disagreements.
This is something that each of us can improve in. And if we can, then we must.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog and Mussie's Musings
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.